by Austin Smith
Princeton University Press, 2013
Review by Claire E. Kruesel
Tempera: a weathered but ghostly man, farmer Karl Kuerner, lies supine in a dark green field, haloed in a dense mound of remnant snow. Black and white photograph: a boy and girl embrace on the grass, knees splayed, the boy shirtless, seen from above. The first (Spring, 1978 by Andrew Wyeth) serves as cover image of Austin’s Smith debut poetry collection, Almanac; the second (Nancy and Dwayne, Danville, Virginia, 1970 by Emmet Gowin) is title and subject of one of Almanac’s poems
Fitting, to frame Smith’s rich visual lines behind a painting of a dying farmer: Smith comes from a 300 acre Illinois dairy farm, one his parents have left but which he still considers home; Andrew Wyeth made an artistic home at the Kuerner farm (Kuerner’s grandson speculates “maybe [Wyeth] looked at my grandfather as a surrogate father.”) In the same way, perhaps Smith—developing and refining his voice—looked at Wyeth as a surrogate speaker-for-the-farm. How does one honor and speak for this place—this life—simplified and marginalized from common view?
In “Postcards to Andrew Wyeth,” Smith doesn’t ask for the answer. He observes “war medals, frying pans,/crow feet, all sizes … a bell rope, deranged … the colorless ocean/ and a barbwire fence/ in the same window … a man on his bed, his shoes on … beneath the mulberry,/ two fresh graves.” It turns out Smith does not need help interpreting his Almanac experience, and he exercises deft and clear delicacy in conveying the parallel experiences buoying this collection.
In the ekphrastic “Nancy and Dwayne, Danville, Virginia, 1970,” the narrator stands in front of the photo in a museum, never thinking of sex until staff mentions it, and “even after the curator said the word/ I preferred to consider [Nancy’s] bliss to be the bliss of saints and artists/ at the moment of death. How else to describe/ her face?”
Who else to describe her face but Austin Smith? He honors even the humanity in book-burning Nazis. The collection’s title surfaces briefly, as a sacrifice, in “Nazi Soldier with a Book in his Pants.” The two boys tasked with burning books sometimes flip one open before condemning it to fire. “It’s like touching a woman’s face/ before you shoot her,” one boy says. The other boy encounters a book that “feels different./ Thin as the spine of a seahorse” and sees “it’s a book/ of letters by a poet he remembers/ reading in school.” Reading this poem, the boy’s tetheredness to and transcendence of his duty were palpable; he pockets the book, explaining “My friend, I hate this/ one so much I’m going to take it back/ to the barracks to burn it./ He shoves the book down his pants/ and picks up an almanac.”
Omission or creative truth, Smith shows, can be a gesture of grace, evolution, even kindness. In “Queen Anne’s Lace” the narrator decides not to stop and speak to a girl he knew as a child, now pregnant and walking the paved road where they used to search for fossils when it was still gravel. “I didn’t want to startle her./ She was walking down the road barefoot/ over fossils that will never be found,// thinking what to name her child.”
In other poems, poetic license offer tenderness: in “The Brinkmeiers,” Smith memorializes the thoughts of each Brinkmeier immediately before their house succumbs to a sudden grain bin explosion. It must be speculation, because the newspapers report they were asleep and “didn’t suffer,” but we feel and believe how “Sam Brinkmeier has just turned/ the lamp on again to read … a picture of a brontosaurus/ spreading across both pages.”
Smith’s most common form is a long line extending out into narrative territory sometimes with resolution, sometimes with an unexpected image. The meaning of these pseudo-prose poems depends upon the flexibility of each line; breaks accrue a momentum of stumbling remembrance in which the authenticity of each observation derives from the surprise with which it is made. In “The Night My Mother,” absent entirely of punctuation, violence brims between the father—who in this poem chases an obnoxious driver to protect the psychological peace of his ailing wife—and anything he touches: “I could tell by the way the bottle/ popped off his lips my father/ was getting ready to blow/ my mother lying above us”; “I’m certain/my father would’ve killed him/ when we got home my mother/ was standing on the porch.”
Whatever spatial form to which his words adhere, however, Smith infuses each poem with imagistic priority. We get the feeling each poem emerges from visual turns, his strength that of a photographer curating a dialogue inherent across the compositional visions of each moment. Still I cannot forget the final lines of “The Man Accused of Fucking Horses”: the man’s remembering that first night, “saying/ ‘Sorry’ out loud in the quiet barn,/ thinking to himself as he put himself away,/ There are men like this in this world/ and I am one of them.”
Smith is not one of them, is not one of the burned Brinkmeiers or the flood-fearers in “Bingo” who evacuated early, quietly, shamed by “the myth that the river could feel fear/ and that the worst floods were after the mass evacuations”; nor is he the photographer in “Aerial Photograph, Glasser Farm, 1972” who sells a farmer the visual secret he has stolen from his farm, “the silo/ exposed to the sky, the rotten grain/ a new moon no one notices but him.” Rather, we sense Smith’s swift presence running between the poems as if looking in the nighttime windows of neighbors that are himself, as if braiding some elegiac Maypole across the 300 acres of his childhood farm.